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Remember His Name
Gary Smith
September 11, 2006
Even as a boy Pat Tillman felt a destiny, a need to do the right thing whatever it cost him. When the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11, he thought about what he had to do and then walked away from the NFL and became an Army Ranger....
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September 11, 2006

Remember His Name

Even as a boy Pat Tillman felt a destiny, a need to do the right thing whatever it cost him. When the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11, he thought about what he had to do and then walked away from the NFL and became an Army Ranger....

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She'd gone through life's grinder without losing her gristle or her grin. She'd lost her father, an international banker, to a heart attack when she was 18, weathered a divorce and now lost a son in baffling circumstances in a war she didn't believe in. All that was left of him to fight for was the spirit of his life, that burning authenticity, and so she came home each afternoon from a day of teaching learning-disabled kids, took a deep breath, dug into a massive plastic bin full of documents that she and her ex-husband had compelled the military to produce, turned on her creeping, clogged-artery computer ... and went to work. Googling alternate sources, e-mailing experts, telephoning Black Sheep, petitioning congressmen, plying every conscience and pulling every lever she could with the dead weight of her son's gold-ingot name. Cross-referencing eyewitness testimony, underlining contradictions, scrawling retorts in the margins--like son, like mother: No way!?????... Why the story?... Total Nonsense.... Total Bulls---.... Why all the incompetence?... I'm not buying that!

Post-it notes piling up, bags beneath her eyes deepening, fist pounding on a table as she howled, "Are you f------ kidding me?" to a brigadier general as stories kept changing, as the estimates of the distance between the gun-blazing GMV and Pat kept varying--ballooning as high as 270 yards, shrinking as low as 33--as descriptions of the lighting differed wildly, as eyewitnesses told her that the shooting occurred not in one continuous four-second helter-skelter drive-by the way her family at first was told but in volleys, with stops and starts, perhaps over the course of nearly a minute. She and her brother Mike measuring off the distances on the hillside behind her home and shaking their heads in disbelief when Mike, from 55 yards, could see Mary's earrings and the three buttons on her blouse. Running back to her computer, firing off another 32 questions for Sen. John McCain to unload on the Pentagon. Mary Tillman was a bulldog.

Yes, it was true, she and Pat had always been fascinated by conspiracy theories, the back-room machinations of power and money. But what was she supposed to do when, Mary says, an Army coroner told her that he did not sign an initial casualty report that stated her son had been killed by enemy fire, because he knew the enemy at that distance wasn't skilled enough to send three bullets that close together through a man's forehead? How was she supposed to let go when so many lapses in judgment and standard procedure seemed to have occurred? How was she supposed to respond when she learned that the testimony of soldiers was changing, that culpability was vanishing, that Pat's uniform and body armor had been burned within three days of his death, that the initial investigator's report was buried and redone after he recommended that "certain leaders be investigated" for "gross negligence" in deciding to split the platoon and have it travel in daylight, and that two gunners be punished for gross negligence and loss of control. What was she supposed to think when she read one officer's conclusion that the Tillmans, "not being [Christian], I'm not really sure what they believe or how they can get their head around death. So, in my personal opinion, sir, that is why I don't think they'll ever be satisfied."

Mary avoided TV cameras and news crews. Too melodramatic, that game. She let the antiwar boat float by. Too muddy, that water. One man's story. One man's determination to live an honest life ... turned on its head and spun in circles by his death. She'd let her son's story stand on its own, let others detect patterns, connect dots.

The Army awarded her son a Silver Star for valor, perhaps unprecedented for a victim of friendly fire. Pat's family felt it was a token to appease them, another attempt to use him in the propagation of patriotic myth. The Army was confounded. Following its first investigation, headed by a captain in Pat's battalion, it had produced a 109-page investigation by a lieutenant colonel in Pat's regiment, then been pressured by the Tillmans into a far more extensive one spearheaded by a brigadier general. The Army disciplined seven men for the incident, penalties ranging from pay-cuts and loss of rank to dismissal from the Rangers and return to the rank-and-file Army. Mere wrist slaps, the family felt, little more than a soldier might get for cursing a superior officer. Their questions and pressure kept mounting, compelling a fourth investigation, this one by the Department of Defense's Inspector General.

Yes, the Army finally admitted, it had violated its own regulations by waiting more than a month to inform the Tillmans that their son had died as a result of suspected friendly fire, but only out of a desire to wait until it had gathered all the facts. As for the burning of the uniform and body armor that might have shown bullet evidence, the Army countered that it was done only because the bloodied gear was considered a potential biohazard and hygiene issue, that they might stir emotion, and because officers in the field had already determined that fratricide was a foregone conclusion.

How far up the chain of command did such decision making go? Would the Army--which told Kevin about the fratricide only after his mates returned to Fort Lewis a month after Pat's death--ever have done even that if it hadn't had to because Kevin was in the platoon? "I never had the sensation that anybody wanted me to do anything except to tell the truth," one officer testified in a subsequent investigation. "I was told over and over, 'This is ugly, but find the truth and let's get out and let's get it done.' ... I think you'd have a hard time finding any impediments [or] that the investigation was blocked or smeared in some way."

Mary didn't have a hard time.

"You try to picture, How did my child die? and it keeps changing," she said. "It's like Pat has died seven times in my head. You think you're losing your mind for months. They attached themselves to his virtue and then threw him under the bus. They had no regard for him as a person. He'd hate to be used for a lie. I don't care if they put a bullet through my head in the middle of the night. I'm not stopping."

Finally, last March, the Inspector General's office asked Army investigators to open a fifth investigation, this one to determine if the negligence involved was criminal. Now Mary could only wait. Two years had passed since that day she'd picked up the phone and heard Pat's wife cry, "He's dead!" Two years, and finally the armor she'd worn for the battle, the distance that she'd kept between herself and the words on those thousands of pages so she could use them as weapons, began to disintegrate, leaving her defenseless against the grief.

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